by Joel Preston Smith
Brian Willson was 46 years old Sept. 1, 1987, the day he sat down across railroad tracks leading out of the Concord, California Naval Weapons Station, ahead of an oncoming train. But the things he’d seen and done by that age seem to speak of a man who’d lived many shades of many different lives.
He’d been a flag-loving Boy Scout, a teen torn between pursuing a career as either a mathematician or a Baptist minister, a Sunday school teacher, a corrections employee in Washington, D.C. who regularly attended meetings of jailed Black Muslim activists, an attorney licensed to practice in D.C, a legislative aide and a town tax assessor. Among others.
But it’s the life he lived as an Air Force captain, as a combat security officer during the Vietnam War I want to consider, reflecting on the train’s approach. A quote from Brian’s website doesn’t define the complexity of his life, but it will have to serve as a brief insight into why Brian-the-Vietnam-veteran, at the risk of losing his life, chose to protest then President Ronald Reagan’s illegal arming of the Contras, and therefore against Reagan’s personal war against the Nicaraguan people:
Speaking of a day 18 years earlier—April of 1969—and of what he saw near the village of Sa Dec, South Vietnam, Brian wrote:
"I witnessed the incredible destruction that had just been inflicted in daylight morning hours on a typically defenseless village about the size of a large baseball stadium. With smoldering ruins throughout, the ground was strewn with bodies of villagers and their farm animals, many of whom were motionless and bloody, murdered from bomb shrapnel and napalm. Several were trying to get up on their feet, and others were moving ever so slightly as they cried and moaned … At one dramatic moment I encountered at close range a young wounded woman lying on the ground clutching three young disfigured children. I stared, aghast, at the woman’s open eyes. Upon closer examination, I discovered that she, and what I presumed were her children, all were dead, but napalm had melted much of the woman’s facial skin, including her eyelids."
As part of an ongoing protest against U.S. arms shipments to mercenaries in Nicaragua, Brian and fellow members of Veterans Peace Action Team had informed the military base of their intentions to block the munitions train, which carried ordnance bound for Central America. A military investigation into the incident noted that there was a clear line of sight for 650 feet from the engine compartment to the point where Brian sat on the tracks. For most of that distance, according to investigators, the train maintained the posted 5 mph speed limit.
But as it neared Brian, the train accelerated to triple that speed.
Two other veterans cleared the tracks in time. Brian didn’t. The wheels severed his right leg above the ankle, and crushed his left leg below the knee. The impact was so severe that it drove Brian’s head against the ground with enough force to destroy a portion of the right frontal lobe of his brain.
Brian’s wife, a midwife, did what she could to stop the bleeding. David Hartsough of the American Friends Service Committee and other activists held him, tried to comfort him, prayed, and waited as Marine Corps security troops—trained in first aid, as all troops are—passively stood by.
A military ambulance arrived a few minutes later, bearing two Navy medics. The medics surveyed the scene—much as you do when considering the photo that frames, but could never encompass, the horror of that moment. They would have taken note of the blood, Brian’s severed foot lying a few feet from his body. They would have witnessed the woman (Brian’s wife) kneeling on the tracks, trying to stem the flow of blood. They would have seen the faces of the men and women surrounding Brian—a mixture of shock, confusion, outrage.
They calmly informed Brian’s wife and friends that the victim had not been run over on military property, therefore he was ‘ineligible’ for care. Then they calmly turned their backs on him, walked to their ambulance and drove away.
A few weeks ago someone asked me what the point of Frontline was. “There are already police and paramedics that go to these things [meaning protests],” the man said. “What’s the point of you being there?”
My first thought was of Brian Willson, and of the Marines and Navy medics who left him to die on the tracks that day. I have no doubt that they made a conscious decision to allow him to die—not because he was a civilian outside the perimeter of a military base, but because he was a peace activist. An enemy of the State.
I thought of the walls people erect around each other and their own consciences—boundaries that lead to distinctions such as who merits protection under the law, who is worthy of respect, who is friend, who is foe, and ultimately, who lives and who dies. I thought about how those boundaries define who, for each of us, we would save at the sacrifice our own life, and who among us could calmly, passively, coldly—perhaps even with satisfaction—passively watch a fellow citizen bleed to death.
And so I told the man about the many lives and shades of Brian Willson. I told him about the day Brian Willson lost his legs, but not his life or his soul. A civilian ambulance arrived about 20 minutes after Brian was struck, and those medics transported Brian to a nearby hospital. Those medics, along with Brian’s wife and friends who acted quickly, saved his life. And they saved his work—the shade of Brian that is filled with light, resolve, fearlessness, and a conscience that demands he speak out against injustice and the brutality of war.
The Brian who is still protesting. Who wears its soul on the outside. The Brian who fasts, writes, marches against war on metal-and-plastic legs and won’t, can’t, turn coldly away from the victims of human indifference.
Frontline exists because activism is dangerous work. I wish it were otherwise. I wish that any person who’d been trained to care for an injured person would do so without reservation or hesitation. I wish that those who work for social justice weren’t deemed enemies of the State, or, in some cases, intentionally targeted for death.
But I am a ‘realist.’ This photo, which documents the immediate aftermath of a day now 30 years distant, is burned into my brain, along with the stories activists have told me about abuse at the hands of police and military troops, the details of State-sponsored torture, the abuse, persecution and murder of activists in Kenya, Egypt, Venezuela, Tunisia … the details of an Institute of Medicine report describing U.S. military physician’s abuse of detainees at Guantanamo Bay detention center.
Realism, and an enormous volume of evidence, argues on behalf of our being there.
We committed to this work because the very people who should be respected, honored and rewarded by the State for their opposition to the criminal abuse of human beings and the destruction of the environment instead are pursued, persecuted, wounded and killed for that work.
We need to be there, and we want to be there, because people who work to protect all of us deserve every effort we can make to protect them.